STALKING THE ESSAY CONFERENCE

March 21, 2013 § 6 Comments

WRI_Essay_Poster_for_web
April 6th, 2013, 10 AM to 6 PM
ITALIAN ACADEMY, 1161 AMSTERDAM AVE, NYC
 
The graduate Writing Program at Columbia University School of the Arts is pleased to announce the inaugural Stalking the Essay Conference, to be held Saturday, April 6, from 10 AM to 6 PM. The conference, organized by Nonfiction Concentration Director Phillip Lopate, is free and open to the public. With this symposium, the Writing Program aims to encircle the practices, theories and possibilities of the essay form by bringing together those who love it.
This conference is intended to be the first of an annual event, as part of a larger effort to establish Columbia University as a magnet for studying the essay’s history and current practice, and nurturing and propagating its future. What makes this location so apt is Columbia’s especially rich essayistic tradition that includes Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, John Dewey, Mark van Doren, F. W. Dupee, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Randolph Bourne, Zora Neale Hurston, Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Daniel Bell, Susan Sontag, Meyer Schapiro, Eric Bentley and Edward Said.
The goal of the conference is to help build a legacy for the essay as an enduring, various, mutating, endearing, essential literary expression. For this must be said in its favor: the Essay is the classic, reliable tool for human consciousness to track itself, and at the same time to overcome isolation—making it possible for writers to establish with readers a bond of friendship.It is a response to the present historical moment, and a fertile meeting-ground for truth and imagination, the personal and the impersonal.

The Innate Shape of AWP Reality

March 9, 2013 § 8 Comments

Another look at AWP’s Nonfiction Conclaveawp2013b, from Alexis Paige:

I am thrilled to report that on Thursday I met my nonfiction idol, Phillip Lopate, and while name-dropping and in the interest of full disclosure, I will also share that David Shields stopped his auditorium reading just to address my friend and me specifically. Fine, so it didn’t happen exactly that way, but since this is both the age of genre-bending and look-at-me social media, it could have happened that way, or it may well have happened that way, or perhaps it even did—in a fictionalized-accounting-of-nonfiction-event-in-pursuit-of-a-higher-truth sort of way. (The higher truth, of course, being that I am special and so are my friends.)

I sat like an excited schoolgirl in the front row with my writing cohort, Nina Gaby, for the I Essay to Be reading of four generations of essayists: Lopate—60s, Shields—50s, Amy Fusselman—40s, and Elena Passarello—30s. Nina and I are disastrous classmates: she, the animated instigator, and I, the giggly sidekick. On my own I can pass for well-behaved, but with her I am a goner—a grown woman with appallingly-little self-control, who has to sit on her hands and bite her cheeks to keep from losing her mind and bladder.

David Shields introduced the reading with a suggestion that its arrangement along generational lines might allow us to see how the essay “tumbles forth” over time. ‘Tumbling’ proved the perfect verb, as the event romped, sang, whispered, boomed, cried, and looped back again, in a chorus that illustrated the form’s elasticity and capacity for wide-ranging structure, subject, and tone. The experience served as a reminder of the essay’s expansiveness, how it holds room for pretty much everything, even nagging examinations of truth itself—where and how truth fits and what it even is, which I realize is a non-assertion assertion that makes me sound like a douchebag.

Through Lopate’s softly-assured and funny reading about genre concerns, to Shields’ deadpan delivery of “Life Story,” a riff on cliché via bumper stickers—from fill-in-the-blank “On Board” to “Sober and Crazy,” or my favorite, “Die With Your Mask On,” Nina and I (and most of the audience I would guess) were overcome—howling with laughter in some moments, wonder-struck in others. Next came Amy Fusselman’s essay on time, parenthood, and pedophilia, all rendered in a pitch-perfect collage of musing and narrative, and then Elena Passarello, from her new book  Let Me Clear My Throat. What is there to say about a writer who looks like a starlet herself, belts like Judy Garland, reads in a husky almost-drawl, and writes crackling prose that compares Garland’s voice to a “a disturbing emotional vertigo” and the way she sings as “like a dram of Armagnac”? Spellbinding.

But back to what did or didn’t happen: I sat close enough to Lopate to touch him and weep into his blazer, but I didn’t. I might have, though, if I could be sure the gesture would come off not as stalking, but as guerilla marketing. In fact, I was merely star struck, and so naturally I stared at him with a frozen serial-killer smile and said nothing.

When Shields read, my friend howled with such consistency and enthusiasm that I became a giggly noodle in my chair, and Shields paused and motioned to us, “this woman [Nina] is really enjoying this essay.” I felt quite proud to be singled out, but then waited for us to be removed and put into the hall. Maybe we were removed,  I can’t remember.

Lopate says that facts and their implications reveal “the innate shape of reality”; he describes his as the “vanguard position” and concedes that Shields’ blurrier view of fiction vs. nonfiction while fundamentally different, is as valid—even healthy for the form. This acknowledgment seems right to me, the essay itself so flexible, the conversation should be too. My own position is closer to Lopate’s, not because I have a crush on him or a pre-contemporary aesthetic or am somehow more abjectly truthful than my contemporaries, but because I am sentimental. I believe, as Lopate does, that “facts matter,” in part because they encode the DNA of emotional resonance that I try to render as a nonfiction writer. I believe in William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things.”

What I was wearing; how it smelled like banana and lemon oil; the isosceles triangle of light that hung over the readers; how Passerello arched like a cat when she broke from reading into song, “When You’re Smiling!”; that Amy Fusselman was late, through no fault of her own I am sure; and that David Shields’ hands shook a bit as he read: these things mattered. I wish I could tell you how much they mattered, but I wasn’t there.


Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist ofGlamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.

Help Set the Welcome Table

February 11, 2013 § 2 Comments

YouBeing an independent publisher is tough going these days, but being an independent publisher focusing on the personal essay tradition can be an even bigger challenge. Those of us who love the form love it madly, but in truth, we may be a small number   Welcome Table Press is trying to thrive despite these odds, and to that end they have launched an IndieGoGo campaign. You can read all about it, see the video, and contribute to the cause here.

Meanwhile, here’s a summary of their plans:

All contributions collected from this Indiegogo campaign will be directed toward the continued printing and distribution of our first two print books, YOU. AN ANTHOLOGY OF ESSAYS DEVOTED TO THE SECOND PERSON, edited by Kim Dana Kupperman, with Heather G. Simons & James M. Chesbro, and ESSAYING THE ESSAY, edited by David Lazar.

YOU. AN ANTHOLOGY is a first-of-its-kind collection, featuring essays that explore failure, planetary movement, and love, among a variety of topics. The up close and personal candor of these autobiographical, lyric, personal, and segmented narratives is tempered by the distance, intimacy, humor, and unsentimental tenderness that the second-person point of view affords both writer and reader.

ESSAYING THE ESSAY is a must-have compendium of essays on the essay, showcasing diverse meditations on the form by a wide range of writers throughout history, including Michel de Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Virginia Woolf, Cynthia Ozick, Phillip Lopate, Robert Atwan, Lia Purpura, and John D’Agata.

Your support will help build our self-sufficiency (pre-press, printing, and advertising are expensive; the larger the print run, the lower the cost per title; distributing books costs money too).

Field Guide to Flash NF Launches Soon

August 23, 2012 § 3 Comments

The book is at the printer right this moment, and Rose Metal Press has opened the pre-order process.  The Brevity corporate towers are awash in champagne and caviar this morning, and much dancing:

ORDER HEREThe Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction

The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by the invaluable Dinty W. Moore, is a lot more than flashy. These thoughtful, thought-provoking essays and exercises have the paradoxical effect of slowing down our attention and encouraging an expansion of the moment, while seeming to be saving writing and reading time. A very useful compilation.”

Phillip Lopate, author of Art of the Personal Essay

“Flash-in-the-pan? Hardly. The flash nonfiction genre has staying power, and The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction will show you why. Opening with a thorough and informative history of the genre, renowned writer, editor, and teacher Dinty W. Moore assembles a cast of writers who share their expertise, suggest writing exercises, and provide exemplary mod­els of the best flash nonfiction being written today. This book is required reading for any writer, editor, or teacher of the brief nonfiction form.”

Rebecca McClanahan, author of The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings and Word Painting

Hungry for the Essay: An Interview with Kim Dana Kupperman

February 22, 2012 § 12 Comments

Contributor Christin Geall interviews Kim Dana Kupperman, author of the critically acclaimed essay collection I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence (Graywolf Press, 2010), which received the 2009 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize in Nonfiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Kupperman is the founder of Welcome Table Press, dedicated to publishing and celebrating the essay in all its forms. She is currently the writer-in-residence in nonfiction at Fordham University. She also teaches in Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA program and coordinates the summer conference of  The Gettysburg Review, where she was managing editor from 2004-11.

Kupperman’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including Best American Essays 2006, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, and River Teeth. Her honors include fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts in 2009; a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a scholarship from the Center for Book Arts in 2008; multiple notable mentions in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays anthologies; the 2003 Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize; and first place in the 1996 Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Essay Contest.

CG: I Just Lately Started Buying Wings has been described as an essay collection that “reads not unlike a memoir.” As a writer and publisher, what are your thoughts about this characterization?

KDK: Many of my essays are autobiographical, and much of first part of the book contains familial tales; this explains that characterization by some readers. But on another level, the reading public has become familiar with themed collections of essays, as well as essay collections repackaged as memoir. Our culture, on an even deeper level, is obsessed with classifying everything. We are marketed down to our last inch of skin and nail; no surprise that our reading is intensely marketed as well. And memoir is now the familiar category, which is odd in a way, considering that only several decades ago, memoirs were what famous people wrote, and essays, a little further back, were immensely popular (think serialized writing, pamphlets, etcetera).

During the last twenty years, it’s as if no one wanted to say the word essay, which is exactly why I founded Welcome Table Press. Though looking at some of the books coming out these days, from mainstream, independent and university presses—David Shields’s Reality Hunger; Chuck Klosterman’s Eating the Dinosaur; Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land; Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana, to name several—it seems as if essays might be coming back into favor. Which, of course, I love.

I think there’s room in the world for both memoir and essay; these are two forms of prose. And, as I’ve said before, people are reading essays all the time (think of the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, not to mention blogs, our modern-day version of the pamphlet, editorials, etcetera). And people are writing essays. All you have to do is look at the immense popularity of conference panels on the essay or, for that matter, the number of people who attend Welcome Table Press’s biannual symposium, In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form. That people are showing up to such events tells me the essay is a form worthy of attention.

CG: Many nonfiction MFA students work towards compiling essay collections and yet, as Phillip Lopate has stated, “no one wants to publish a collection of essays” (“In Defense of the Essay,” River Teeth, Vol. 12, No. 1). Your book, and success with Welcome Table Press, prove otherwise. What career advice would you give to writers enamored with the essay?

KDK: I think people need to be in this profession for the art: there’s no money in it. I’ve heard many fellow writers tell me, and I’ve heard it myself, that publishers, editors or agents thought the writing was stellar, but they couldn’t sell an essay collection. One of the reasons I founded Welcome Table Press was in response to this trend.

Writers should publish in literary magazines, and I’m not just saying that because I used to work at one. If you want to publish in literary journals, it means making a commitment to them, purchasing and reading them, becoming knowledgeable about the market before submitting to them. With this economy and the push to make everything digital, we’ve lost a lot of journals recently. Which saddens me.

CG: Your work has been acclaimed for its resistance to self-indulgence. Is this a cultivated stance or an instinct?

KDK: Both. I’m really not all that interesting. I think I’m more apt to indulge in language and in the gift of ideas and the turning of phrases from other writers.

CG: Language often leads in your work, such as when you deconstruct the etymology and meaning of the word cliché in the midst of having an affair. You write: “I’ve never considered that the clichés I’ve headed into (including this one) are merely reminders that I’m alive, kicking around the same story over and over, trying to transcend the too familiar, sometimes unable to twist language in new ways to describe what or how I’m living.” Could you reflect on how language leads you to story?

KDK: I’ll often look at a word’s etymology as a way into exploring meaning and, potentially, a way into locating the origin of an idea. This kind of rumination is crucial in the essay, a kind of chewing on language. An essayist is, essentially, writing the biography of a thought, allowing cognition itself—its circuitry and obsessiveness, its “moments of being,” as Virginia Woolf called it—to play out on the page.

It’s also an essayistic instinct to look at the potential derivations of patterns, behaviors, ways of thinking, etcetera. This instinct materializes as the speculative voice, doing what Barbara Hurd calls “perhapsing,” the probing at all the maybes and what ifs of a particular narrative.

CG: You use a vast repertoire of stylistic devices, including italics, fragments, dashes, hyphenated modifiers, ellipsis, parenthesis and lists. Did you cultivate this style? Or do you think syntactically?

KDK: Yes, I think I do; I think all writers do. Language is all we have. Visual artists might use paint; carpenters, nails. As writers, all we have are words, punctuation and syntax. That’s it. And from that we need to fashion a voice and persona.

Certainly my work as an editor has helped me grow as a writer. I’m very grateful to Mark Drew, the assistant editor at The Gettysburg Review, who has provided a great deal of mentoring to me as an editor. Speaking a foreign language helped me to further understand English and its nuances. By learning the intricacies of French grammar—and then, in turn, by teaching English and the intricacies of its grammar to French speakers—I learned to pay attention to syntax and diction, to really examine how we put words together.

CG: Sven Birkerts once noted that “Writers just starting to work with memoir often have real difficulty with (the) crucial distinction between event sequence and story.” What advice would you offer to an emerging essayist interested in using memories to shape narrative?

KDK: Annie Dillard wrote a terrific essay, “To Fashion a Text,” in which she advocates what I like to call the fine art of omission, and in which she describes the decision a writer faces about “what to leave in and what to leave out.” I wish more writers left more out.

Another bit of advice I’d offer is this: Always try to write about others more than you write about yourself. It’s how a narrator looks at the world surrounding him or her, what and who they look at, that ultimately interests a reader.

CG: Your book’s subtitle, Missives from the Other Side of Silence, suggests the art of collecting. How did you determine what to leave in and leave out when assembling your book?

KDK: I’ll answer this question with parts of a talk I gave at AWP’s 2009 conference, from a panel called The Essayist’s Dilemma, which was moderated by Marcia Aldrich, former editor of Fourth Genre; panelists included Lucy Ferriss and E. J. Levy:

The arrangement of my book came about in stages, beginning with that monster called the creative thesis, completed after two-plus years in a master of fine arts program. After I graduated, I thought that all I’d need to do was write a few more essays to fill out the collection I had so diligently assembled as a thesis. And then a friend read the essay titled “Relief” and said, “This is very interesting, but what happened before the time you wrote about?” That question prompted me to take apart this particular essay and write it into a memoir. Which meant, for practical purposes, removing a piece of writing from an already slim collection. And so I spent almost two years writing a memoir.

Though I published chapters from the memoir as discrete essays, it did not sell. After sending it to agents, publishers and contests, and having it turned down, I decided to take a new course of action. I dismantled the memoir, breaking it into discrete autobiographical essays and restoring “Relief,” the essay from which it germinated. I merged these into the essay collection I had already written and to which I had added one or two newer pieces. It occurred to me that if I wanted to publish this book, I’d need to solve the puzzle of how to organize these somewhat-linked-but-mostly-not pieces.

Though a book of discrete essays may be opened and delved into at any given point, most readers, perhaps because we are trained by the beginning-middle-end literary schema, desire an organizing principle, a structure that imposes meaning—even if it is quite nuanced—that relates the parts comprising a whole. Using sections to group the essays would help, I thought. And, the book’s title would derive from one of the essays; I knew that the title would, eventually, lead me to develop a suitable configuration, but which title to pick, which essay to emphasize? I identified some of the shared preoccupations among the essays—air, wind, flight—as well as some of the overarching themes—departures and disappearances (read “death”), but how to wrap it up in a neat package for the dear readers I imagined on the other side of the page?

When I decided on the title, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, I realized that the subtitle would have to function as the agent of cohesion. I thought of applying a leitmotif of correspondence, using different kinds of letters as subheadings for individual sections. I noted words and phrases that evoked the epistolary: Letters home. Missives, dispatches, correspondence, billets-doux, epistles. Return to sender. Air mail. Parcel post. Sealed with a kiss. Etcetera. I played with the organization that was possible within these different rubrics. “I like the word missive for the subtitle,” I said to my husband during a moment of procrastination induced by coming to a dead halt. “But missives from where?” I wondered. “How about ‘from the interior’?” he suggested. And presto!—I had a title: I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Interior. All that was left was to figure out how to group the essays. I started by using Roman numerals.

When Graywolf Press editor/publisher Fiona McCrae suggested that I change the subtitle of the book to Missives from the Other Side of Silence, I agreed. Several months into the copyediting process, I looked at the table of contents. Those Roman numerals seemed lonely. I still saw the collection as needing some sort of organizing principle. That’s when I returned to the original idea of the epistolary. After all, I thought, Sue Halpern, in her introduction, asked readers to approach these essays “as an assortment of letters bundled together,” a phrase that led to the cover design.

I dug out my list of epistolary vocabulary and phrases. After looking at the three sections and moving an essay or two, I clearly saw what I needed to do. The first section I titled “Letters Home and Abroad,” because these pieces were all about my family, here in America and there, in czarist Russia. The second section I called “Return to Sender,” and in it I included a mix of essays about such diverse subjects as a lover’s suicide, working in a battered women’s shelter, and a meditation on the color orange. In the third section, “Billets-doux,” I placed all the pieces about love, platonic, romantic, and of language.

CG: What’s next for you?

KDK: I’m working on a memoir called Five Days, about my mother, who came of age in New York City the early 1950s. Though I’ve written a lot about her, she still remains complex and interesting, and now that I’ve matured as a person and as a writer, I see different ways into understanding and writing about her that I never saw before. In some ways, what I’m really writing is not a memoir, but a biography-in-essays. I’m also working on two collections of essays, one that contains more hybrid and experimental pieces, the other classical, digressive essays.

Christin Geall teaches nonfiction at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia. Follow her @ChristinGeall.

On Teaching CNF to Undergraduates

November 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

Brevity contributor William Bradley defends the teaching of creative nonfiction to traditional undergraduates today on Bedford/St. Martin’s Lit Bits blog.  He makes more than a few good points, including this one about finding authenticity through persona:

While some writers, like Phillip Lopate, suggest that a nonfiction form like the personal essay is more suited for middle-aged people (who are, presumably, prone to reflection), I believe that it’s important for students to examine and write about their lives.  I know the complaints about college students’ supposed self-absorption, and I feel like it’s lately become fashionable to bemoan our students’ interest in writing about their own lives.  The suggestion is that writing about the self — particularly the young self, the self who hasn’t experienced very much of the world — convinces students that they can be writers without taking risks that involve experiences, adventures, and other people.

I don’t subscribe to that theory  … When I ask my college students to write nonfiction, I am asking them to disregard the superficial, melodramatic narratives that tend to pass for reality in our popular culture and, instead, dig deeper.  A show like Bad Girls Club or Road Rules traffics in abstraction and stereotypes, but in memoir and essay writing, we’re looking for the concrete, for the unique individual consciousness.  We’re stripping away the constructed persona and focusing instead on the person, with all of the complexity and contradictions that would be sure to get her application to live in the Jersey Shore beach house rejected.

You can read Bradley’s full post here on Lit Bits and his Brevity 32 essay “Julio at Large” here.

On Transparency of Thought in the Essay

October 21, 2011 § 14 Comments

Whispered Wills and Words That Bleed: On Transparency of Thought in the Essay, a Brevity craft essay by Jennifer Bowen Hicks

Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: I’ve never taken my clothes off in public and I’m not a particularly close talker. If I have boundary issues, no one has ever told me so and I’ve never asked, a fact that, itself, should exonerate me. Bear this in mind as I tell you that I admire Terry Tempest Williams’ aim to write as though she “whispers in the ear of the one [she] loves.” Such a whisper, to such a love, would be, above all else—intimate, wouldn’t it? Intimacy, I think, must presuppose honesty as honesty presupposes vulnerability. Williams, then, must write as though she’s exposing her barest self.

An earnest whisper in another’s ear—how brave. Put away thoughts of black lace and sordid secrets. The sort of whisper I mean can be about hummingbirds or athlete’s foot, an aging parent or eggplant. Its very purpose is not to show, but to say, and by saying to connect. You to me. Arthur Schopenhauer notes that when human language began it resembled animal sounds and marked not concepts but feelings and “agitations of the will.” Imagine homo habilis’ moan as she held her first blood-smeared newborn—a guttural utterance that might have conveyed: Beautiful. Scared. Wow.

When a writer voices the agitations of her will through words, I feel my own blood moving inside my veins, transfused and transformed by the essay’s greatest potential gift: full access to another human’s thinking, feeling, core—that place where our truest feelings and agitations live. In writing, is there any other point?

One of many ways I’ve felt invited into a writer’s “core” is when reading his transparent, winding thoughts. Seneca’s essay, On Noise, for instance, ancient though it may be, subtly welcomes the reader into his fluid stream of consciousness. Seneca, who was said to have influenced Montaigne, expresses his thoughts, ideas and rebuttals in such an organic way that it would be hard to believe the words didn’t flow directly from his head to his pen.

On Noise opens with Seneca obsessing over external noises that are distracting him:

Someone starting up a brawl… the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, the people who leap into the pool with a strenuous splash.”

We hear every noise Seneca hears. Soon the writer takes a substantive shift from external noise—carriages, carpenters, the coxswain’s strident tone—to internal stillness. In that moment it feels that Seneca himself took a U-turn in his mind and rounded the bend to a different path. The effect is one of intimacy, for certainly it’s compelling to be inside another’s mind. In fact, it is exhilarating to watch the birth of an idea. You can see it unfold in this passage:

I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it.  There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are not at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighborhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil? 

After this passage Seneca considers internal peace. In the end, he convinces himself that we are “lulled to rest” only when our temperament is such that we can remain detached to all grievances and distractions. Yes, he’s sure of this. Yes. Yet, he wonders…isn’t it easier to remove oneself from distraction than struggle? Yes, come to think of it, it certainly is. He’ll be leaving to do just that. He was only giving himself a little practice. And in the end, it’s just as compelling to have watched the birth of a contradiction to his ideas.

This type of writing has a certain generosity of spirit. It’s human. It’s vulnerable. Readers are almost co-creators of the new ideas. If not that, then we’re godparents of sorts. Is that too strong? Maybe. The point is, we’re invested.

It’s easy to see Seneca’s influence on Montaigne’s writing. We follow Montaigne’s thoughts, too, swerving though they may be. They flow from one concrete idea to another, even to the thought process itself. Consider Montaigne’s essay Upon Some Verses of Virgil.  It has what today’s business leaders might call—transparency:

We should take the whip to a young man who spent his time discriminating between the taste of wines and sauces. There is nothing I ever knew less or valued less than this. At present I am learning it. I am much ashamed of it, but what should I do? I am still more ashamed and vexed at the circumstances that drive me to it. It is for us to trifle and play the fool, and for the young to stand on their reputation and in the best place.

It’s messy. And it does get a little exhausting. It requires trust on the part of the reader.  (Phillip Lopate acknowledges: “Finally one just has to surrender to Montaigne, dive into the ocean of his thoughts and bob around in that undulating, fascinating mind for the sheer line by line reward of it.”)

The flipside, though, is that it places an additional burden on writer and reader. To follow this person’s mind through thickets and brambles over brooks and into what could be a sunrise but may be a ditch—this writer must be interesting. Not just the writing—the personality of the writer. (A writing teacher of mine once disagreed: not interesting, he said, just interested. I now wonder if we’re both right, if those two things aren’t one and the same.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay, Montaigne; or, the Skeptic, says this of Montaigne:

The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences. I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive.

Emerson responds not just to the words, he responds to Montaigne, himself. The gift and gamble of Montaigne’s writing is that we are not merely reading his words—we are exploring his raw mind.

Contrast that to reading a tightly crafted persona. The effect is less vulnerable and the essayist becomes, in some ways, a tour guide, taking us on a journey, yes, but one in which we will see no back alleys of the mind. Granted, we see plenty of beauty when the essayist is in control; we are in good, often skilled hands. We are meant to see the essayist’s idea/proposition/persona laid out cleverly and clearly. We are meant to chuckle at the turns of phrases and awe at the neatness of the metaphor. Mind you, I do all of these things.  Often I do them with gratitude and delight. Indeed, sometimes it is nice to have a competent tour guide in a new land. But I do something else, too. I find I am less forgiving of the essayist in some ways. This writer hasn’t allowed me to see the creation unfolding, to witness inevitable human contradictions. So I find myself asking for them. I can become less an unconditional reader, more a skeptical consumer.

A.A. Milne’s essay, The Cupboard, for example, gives the illusion of wandering and of self-exploration, but it isn’t a presentation in which the thought process feels organic. The essay’s narrator is renting a place that, to his joy, has a fine cupboard. He needs the cupboard because he doesn’t have a garden like married men do, who grow plants only for pretense. You see, the garden is where married men bury things they don’t want: broken cups, old shoes, etc. But Milne, pitiful bachelor that he is, has only a cupboard. So he tours us through this cupboard, item by item.

The cupboard is nearly full. I don’t usually open it to visitors, but perhaps you would care to look inside for a moment? That was my first top-hat.…That is a really good pair of boots…All that paper over there? Manuscript….Well, you see, it might be valuable one day…

The final object Milne shows his reader is a letter, which he coyly instructs us to look away from, surmising that perhaps if things had been handled differently with the object of his correspondence, then, perhaps he’d have a marriage garden, too.

Milne’s essay is fun to read. But he is not transparent in thought the way Montaigne and Seneca are. Cut these words and they will not bleed because they are not Milne but a crafted representation of him, his character: dejected, wistful bachelor.

In the service of Milne’s persona, the essay reaches a sweet ending, which is meant to be self-deprecating but winds up feeling a little tidy. I smile, but I also wonder: What kept Milne from securing his love? What’s in his heart, his head? What’s happening along the dark, potholed road that connects the two? That’s the path I most want to travel down. I don’t care what mess I discover along the way; it’s the access that I crave. Instead of whispering in my ear, Milne tours me through a quaint cupboard of remorse. And that tour is enjoyable; it is pleasant and it’s economical. But as the tourist in Milne’s essay, I leave having missed the local haunts, the most memorable places, those raw spots ripe with character that only a few locals know of, those very real corners that distinguish this “country” from every other place on earth.


Jennifer Bowen Hicks writes essays and stories, a few of which can be found at Connotation Press and Defunct. She’s the assistant nonfiction editor for Hunger Mountain, a contributing editor for Defunct, and a 2011 Loft Mentor Finalist in Creative Prose. She teaches creative writing to prisoners and lives in St. Paul, Minn. Her MFA is from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

A Report from WTP’s “In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form”

October 19, 2011 § 6 Comments

A guest post from essayist Amanda Dambrink:

This past weekend I spent the better part of two days traveling so I could spend a few hours reveling in essays at the Welcome Table Press Symposium in west Manhattan, one thousand miles from my apartment in west Madison. And after a long week of meetings and training at a new corporate job I felt almost giddy sitting in that sunlit room full of essayists as Phillip Lopate began to read aloud, “There’s something about autumn that makes me want to rearrange my bookshelves…”

Those of us who were able to attend last year’s inaugural Symposium knew to expect a day packed with high-quality presentations, panels, and readings by some of the most dedicated writers, teachers, and publishers of the essay, and this year’s event did not disappoint. Following Phillip Lopate’s honoree address, presenters like Barbara Hurd and Robin Hemley challenged us to, among other things, write essays that “startle us into discovery,” embrace the potential for rigorous research to inform our writing, and rethink the way we incorporate visual art into essays and vice versa.

In a presentation on teaching the essay, panelists including Richard Hoffman, Robert Root, and other great teachers asked us to reconsider the role of the workshop leader and discussed how to facilitate better writing by encouraging essayists to study their long literary heritage, to always be suspicious of certainty, and to remain, as journalist Donald Murray has said, “forever astonished at the obvious.”

Fantastic readings by Amy Leach, E. J. Levy, Shelley Salamensky, Ryan Van Meter, and Jerald Walker were followed by a helpful Q&A panel on the state of the essay in the publishing marketplace. Representatives from top-notch publishers of the essay like Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and Creative Nonfiction passed on practical advice and insights about where and how to go about finding homes for the essays we write.

By the end of the day I had accumulated a long list of essays to read, met many new essayists whose work I look forward to following in the future, and purchased enough books that I could rationalize rearranging my bookshelves when I got home. Thanks to Kim Dana Kupperman and the rest of the Board of Directors and volunteers at Welcome Table Press who organized this wonderful event! I know there are a lot of us essayists looking forward to the next Symposium.

Upcoming Event: In Praise of the Essay/Practice & Form

September 11, 2011 § 4 Comments

James M. Chesbro, editorial assistant at Welcome Table Press, guest-blogs about the upcoming one-day symposium In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form:

During my first semester as an adjunct professor, before I introduced the subject of personal essay to a group of Literature and Composition students, I reread Innovations in Teaching the Essay, a collection of panel discussions given last year at a one-day symposium called In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form. The symposium, launched in 2010 by Welcome Table Press, a nonprofit dedicated to celebrating and publishing the essay, is a meeting place for writers to celebrate and discuss a genre that, as a creative form, often takes a back seat to fiction and poetry. The talks given that afternoon and memorialized on the Welcome Table Press website provided me with the insight and wisdom I needed to walk into the classroom feeling confident that I could teach my students how to understand the essay in a new and exciting way.

Last year’s symposium didn’t only help me understand the myriad ways one can teach the essay. It also helped me recognize exactly what it means to be an essayist these days, when the line between fact and fiction is sometimes blurred. Robert Atwan, series editor of The Best American Essays and keynote speaker at the 2010 symposium, argued that E. B. White was more literary writer than newspaper reporter. “In today’s fact-checking environment,” he said, “it’s easy to forget that the personal essay is a literary form, not a signed affidavit.” Jerald Walker, author of Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, backed up that point when he admitted that he was “haunted by a recurrent dream in which an exhaustive investigation uncovers that [he is] not a forty-six-year-old black male who was raised in Chicago’s inner-city, but rather an eighty-three-year-old white woman from Hot Springs, Montana.” And so, he continued, these are hostile times for writers of literary nonfiction, and I would have to agree. Which is precisely why essayists need both Welcome Table Press and this symposium, where we can share, discuss, ask questions, and learn from some of the best in the business.

This year’s symposium will be held on Saturday, October 15, at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. Phillip Lopate, who is considered by many one of the most important essayists of our time, will be in attendance as honoree. Robin Hemley, Barbara Hurd, Helen Benedict, Joshua Wolf Shenk, and Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr (creators of Idiots’ Books) will discuss practice, form, and other matters of craft. And once again, a panel on innovations in teaching the essay will take place, this time with Richard Hoffman, Patrick Madden, Suzanne Menghraj, Robert Root, Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Dustin Beall Smith. A Q&A with editors from The Best American Essays, Creative Nonfiction, Defunct, Fourth Genre, Graywolf Press, The Pedestrian, River Teeth, and Sarabande Books will finish the day.

Consider joining us at Fordham University, in New York City, on October 15, 2011. In these hostile times, a little praise for the essay is in order.

 Click here to download the registration form.

 Click here to download all of the panel discussions from the inaugural symposium, for free.

James M. Chesbro is editorial assistant at Welcome Table Press. His essays appear in Connecticut Review and The Upper East Side Magazine. He is an MFA candidate at Fairfield University.

 

Can’t Touch This: Lopate on the Essay Collection

October 20, 2010 § 4 Comments

The latest issue of River Teeth has a fine essay from Philip Lopate on the health of the essay collection in the current book market. Lopate’s essay, titled “In Defense of the Essay Collection,”  is not available online, so you’ll have to get yourself to a library or order a copy, but it’s well worth the effort.

Here’s where he begins:

“In these uncertain times for the book trade, when the very future of the printed word seems in question, the one thing certain is that no one wants to publish a collection of essays. Your agent would prefer not to have to sell it, your old publishers don’t want to touch it, and even those pretty young editors who smile enticingly around the buffet table and give midlist authors such as yourself their cards don’t want anything to do with it. Perhaps – perhaps – an essay collection with a focus, a hot topic that will get an author on talk shows, yes, that’s conceivable. But a mere compendium of random essays previously published in magazines, forget it.”

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